Flexibility at any cost

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Credit: Glasgow Guardian / Rosie Wilson

Louise Wylie
Writer

There are few things more controversial in the modern world of work than the zero-hours contract. Some view it as an exploitative tool of businesses undercutting workers’ rights, others as a flexible arrangement for those employed in part-time work. The Labour Party want them banned and unions are increasingly mobilising against them. Students are disproportionately drawn to this kind of job, with highly variable academic and social commitments that make flexibility attractive. Like many people I know I’ve worked a zero hours contract – at McDonald’s for two years between the ages of 16 and 18. So, what’s the verdict?

First off, McDonald’s was the only place that would take me when I entered the workplace. I was 16, still in school, with no experience. It wasn’t a Christmas temp job and there wasn’t a trial period, I was just hired. Fab. I wasn’t looking for a lot of hours or anything long-term, just some extra cash and a wee part-time job.  In that sense it was great, but the actual experience was far from perfect.

The main issue with zero-hours contracts has to be the pay insecurity. You have no way of knowing how much money you’ll be getting at the end of the month and that’s extremely difficult to work around. Some weeks I was working five shifts with no option of refusal. Other times I would go three weeks with no shifts and no money. From hearing other stories, it actually seems like I was one of the lucky ones in this regard.

Maria Beckett, currently studying at Strathclyde, experienced the ultimate slap in the face from one zero-hours contract: “They hired me, said I had the job and should buy the uniform, so I did. Then they said they’d call me for shifts and they never did. I turned down another job offer for this job because I thought I was safe but I just never got a shift.” She bought two uniforms because she thought she’d need a backup.

Another student had a similar experience working in hotels: “I wasn’t let off so much as they just ceased giving me shifts with no notice. I called in weekly to find out my shifts, so I essentially had to figure out for myself after a few weeks that I wasn’t working there anymore”.

Waiting around for that call from the boss makes going about the rest of your life that bit more stressful. An invitation to a night out in two weeks’ time? Might be working then. Saw a stunning but pricey pair of boots in Topshop? I might not get paid next month and then I’ll need that money. There’s no minimum monthly wage in a zero-hours contract, no security, no safety net.  

Struggles over the shifts that are made available also makes things tough, with companies hiring more people than they can supply hours for. One student working in hospitality explained how difficult that could become: “[…]the work eventually dries up and makes it a really hostile place to go into. During quiet periods everyone still wants to work and it feels almost like a competition to get even a four hour shift – constantly checking your phone, ringing up, etc., to see what’s available, and it feels like you’re competing against your pals when you all need to work.”

Of course, this flexibility can work in a student’s favour. Many of us go home over the summer or away travelling and zero-hours contracts usually don’t cause much fuss over taking unpaid leave. People can leave the job for a few months and return whenever they’re back, which would be near impossible for conventional jobs. Maria, speaking of another job, said: “It was pretty helpful for fitting in with my busy university schedule, plus I never had to ask for holidays off [because] I got to pick my shifts as they came.”

So, the actual weekly hours in a zero-hours contract can be a blessing and a curse, working for some and not for others. That’s fair enough. Yet, another thing that seems to go hand in hand with these jobs is a difficult – to say the least – work environment.

In my time at McDonald’s, I witnessed illegal working practices, young people being pressured to ditch school to cover shifts, and threats of the sack for minor offences, all on top of an already highly stressful job. Bear in mind that my McJob was my first experience of the real adult world of work, as it is for many people, and that it is enormously difficult to stand up for yourself in these situations. “I used to work in a hotel where we were often working upwards of six hours without a break,” says the former hotel employee, and these illegal practices seem to be common with these zero-hours contracts. Another student working at Sports Direct was searched after every shift and visit to the shop.  Finishing times for his shifts weren’t stuck to, and he would frequently have to work for up to an hour and a half after he was meant to leave. People often either don’t know their rights or are forced to ignore them in order to keep getting shifts. In jobs such as these, the workers are often easily replaceable while being unable to find anything more stable. The financial insecurity of zero hour contracts leaves workers open to exploitation in the large portion of the service industry that makes use of them.  

Workers also often don’t receive many training benefits from these jobs, as companies decline to spend money on training people that will either be let go or move on to better pastures fairly swiftly. On yet another job, Maria recalls: “[T]hey kept putting me in shifts I had no training for – [I] was front of house bar at a huge gig having never pulled a pint or worked a till before – [it] was pretty intimidating.”

I experienced this first-hand at McDonald’s – thrown into the deep end with very minimal basic training, health and safety just about touched on. By the end of my time there, they were asking me to help train new people without the wage of a crew trainer. Health and safety on the job was also fairly lax; not due to the fault of the managers who were, by and large, lovely, but by the company’s drive for more and more profit. Pressure to make more and more money was overwhelming, so things like taking time to sort yourself out with proper equipment was secondary.

I worked with people with permanent marks up their arms from oil burns. Working the fry station for hours on end was almost unbearable. The heat was overwhelming, your skin would dry, crack and start to bleed from the salt, especially between your fingers and on the sensitive part of your lips. One friend worked for hours with her hand in a cup of ice to numb the pain of a bad burn. Scalds and falls were common, and I personally ended up in A&E after a boiling tea was knocked over me. All for £4.35 an hour.

There are undeniably benefits to the zero-hours contract, especially for students. The flexibility entailed can allow for summers away and can be adapted to fit your university timetable. These perks however, should not come at the expense of a safe and decent work environment. There is no doubt in my mind that contracts such as these are exploitative, but they don’t have to be. Workers’ rights need to be upheld, no matter whether the work is part-time or not.  There must be a better option for us.

Names have been changed.